Pilot video conferences help families connect with prisoners from a distance

Greg Dohler/THE GAZETTE - Glenn Holland, pastor for community ministries at Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church, in the video room in the church’s community center.

The Beltsville Adventist Community Center is using video technology to help families keep in touch with their imprisoned relatives.

The center, which is less than a year old, installed video-conferencing software and equipment that family and friends can use to speak with inmates who are eligible to receive visitors at Jessup Correctional Institution.

“We’re very excited to be piloting this,” said Glenn Holland, community pastor for the center, which is operated through the Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church.

“We think this is better for safety, and it is easier on families in that they do not have to travel as far,” said Martha Danner of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

Inmates are more likely to be successful after prison if they have strong family support, but many cannot make the journey for visits on a regular basis, Danner said.

“If somebody can visit from a remote location and maintain closer contact with the inmate, that inmate may well do better when he or she gets out,” said Danner, the department’s deputy director of community supervision support.

Holland said he learned about video-conference visits being used in Virginia through the regional conference of Seventh-day Adventist churches. Holland said Virginia is the only other state to provide the service. “It seemed like something we ought to be doing in Maryland,” he said. He contacted the department of correctional services in September to develop the program.

Jessup is the only Maryland prison participating, but if the pilot is successful, the program will be expanded to other state prisons, Danner said. Several Baltimore area churches have expressed an interest in the idea.

There are 22 prisons in Maryland; Jessup is the closest to Prince George’s County.

Capt. Anthony Lewis, pilot project coordinator at Jessup, said the benefits include not having to search visitors for contraband or worry about visitor safety inside the facility.

“Jessup Correctional Institution was pleased to be chosen . . .to pilot this video visit program,” Lewis said. “This is a wonderful program, and I would like to see it expand.”

The first video visit was held July 14.

“It went great,” Holland said. “They were really excited to be the first ones to try it.” The inmate and visitor did not want to be identified, he said.

Video visits must be scheduled at least a week in advance by calling the Beltsville Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Visits are scheduled only for Sundays because the church observes the Sabbath on Saturdays and hosts a day-care program weekdays. But if demand increases, the program might be extended to weeknights, Holland said.

The community center also provides other services, such as counseling, a computer lab and a food pantry.

Holland said the video visit is one way churches and government can cooperate.

“Both churches and government need to be working together to meet the needs of the community that we both have a mutual interest in serving,” Holland said.

 
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